Book Reviews - US Review of Books

How We’ll Live on Mars

by Stephen L. Petranek
Simon & Schuster

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“There are some wildcards in terraforming Mars, including the possibility of reawakening ancient life-forms.”

President Nixon’s legacy, and resulting long shadow over history, rests with two monumental blunders unknown to most people. He took the US dollar off the gold standard, resulting in a global currency destabilization that may soon come home to roost. In addition, he canceled the Saturn V rocket—the largest rocket ever assembled by mankind, the rocket that would have launched astronauts to Mars. Without either of those decisions, the US space program might have already colonized the red planet and would have the money to accomplish it.

After a fifty-year malaise, NASA lacks both the funding and the technological will to get the job done. Although it appears to be catching up for lost time, it has purposefully suffered from a presidential lack of vision leading from Nixon to Obama. In short, the US is decades behind where it should be. Make no mistake about it; going as far back as the Mercury Program days and beyond, Mars has always been the goal. Its similarity to Earth and its close proximity to the mineral-rich asteroid belt make it the ultimate target within our solar system.

Petranek covers the basics of a potential trip to and the colonization of Mars in what appears to be a reprint of a TED lecture rather than any in-depth discussion on the topic. Still, he covers the necessary points regarding why, how, and then what happens next. Achieving Mars will be complicated. If cutting-edge engine technology doesn’t pan out, the trip will be a minimum of six to ten months, all the while exposing humans to an unprecedented level of radiation that doesn’t cease once they reach the planet. On the surface, humans must immediately tend to the basics of food, water, oxygen, and shelter. Temperatures range from 80 degrees to -225 degrees Fahrenheit, and the atmosphere is toxic. Luckily but not easily, Mars has water frozen at the poles, in regolith rock, and perhaps below the surface, and if you can reclaim water, you can make all the oxygen you require.

The author sticks with the theory that travelers to Mars will never return to Earth. This opposes a more ambitious plan for a Mars cycler commuting between planets while carrying passengers and cargo. Regardless of the approach, early arrivals to Mars will need to bring everything they need to survive, but to establish a colony, they’ll need to generate all vital staples on-site, including growing plants to eat and creating parts for repair and construction. Eventually they’ll go about the process of terraforming the surface to sustain life. A few theories regarding this latter transformation are kicked around in this book as well.

At times, the author pays too much homage to private enterprise players such as Elon Musk, but given NASA’s slowed pace and funding, it’s logical that humans aren’t going to reach Mars without the commercial interests of partners. Virtually no great human migration has been accomplished on idealism alone. For example, Christopher Columbus, like the Vikings before him, traveled to the New World in search of treasure for his homeland. Later on, the Pilgrims arrived via private funding with the hope of establishing a regular income stream for their investors.

Mars is the New World, and like the explorers that preceded them on Earth, travelers to Mars will go to change their lives, discover new frontiers for the species, and harvest the planet’s riches. Before long, our descendants will not return to Earth, but become Martians for future generations. This book provides an overview of how that might happen.

Book Reviews - US Review of Books

Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt

by Kristin Hersh
University of Texas Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Hope’ has always stuck in my head. You hated hope, said it was misguided.”

If your introduction to Vic Chesnutt was the benefit album Sweet Relief II, you quickly moved past the great celebrity performances and asked: Who is this songwriter and why haven’t I heard of him before? If you still haven’t heard of Chesnutt—or the author of this book for that matter—you’d better go record shopping this afternoon before someone spots your musical blind spot. Regardless, in this haunting, poetic, musical road show memoir, singer/songwriter Kristin Hersh takes us inside her friendship with Chesnutt. Her experience is as insightful to a musician’s life as it is to the human existence—constantly probing and reevaluating self-understanding along with her footing on the planet.

Chesnutt, paralyzed since eighteen years of age, is a songwriter’s songwriter, whose catalogue has been rerecorded and admired for decades. He passed away on Christmas 2009 after an apparent self-induced overdose. He would likely find the sentimentality of that date to be nauseating. There was very little he wouldn’t poke fun of, including himself. He came across as somewhat twisted by life’s cruel blows and ironies, but he was beautiful as well, like a modern sculpture that acknowledges the past but rearranges it in a compelling way. As Hersh says, “he was broken in all the right places.” Listening to his songs, you had the feeling that you were always hearing the real Vic Chesnutt.

Much of this book covers a shared tour when Chesnutt was a decade or more into a brilliant career launch and Hersh was composing one of her best solo albums. You’ll understand Hersh’s must-have Sunny Border Blue better after reading this book. The line between Chesnutt’s everyday discourse and songs will be blurred. From town to town and stop to stop, as their vigilant spouses watch and occasionally mop up after them, Chesnutt and Hersh bounce off each other intellectually and emotionally, achieving spare equilibrium in one of the truly unique musical relationships.

The ending is the curtain fall you expected, although the author fights hard to meter her words while the songwriter fights just as hard to mute her sound regarding the event. Grief doesn’t get processed in a minute, a day, a year. Grief puts a new song in your head, one you never wanted to hear. Hersh sketches the loss, that song.

While a smidge more orientation would have been appreciated in general, this narrative isn’t about place and time. The writing is a lot like Hersh’s songs—focusing on moments, reflections, and the stray-dog objects that compose life. There are lines you’ll never forget, and you can’t help but love the adorable, self-sabotaging, curmudgeon Chesnutt revealed in these pages. You’ll wish you’d been there to absorb his flak backstage or in the southern sun. On balance, this book stands as a testament to the sincerity of his songwriting.

Book Reviews - US Review of Books

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space

by Janna Levin
Knopf

“We see evidence of black holes destroying neighboring stars. We see evidence of super black holes in centers of galaxies… But we have never really seen a black hole, which only adds to the thrill of the prospect of hearing them.”

Astronauts returning on the space shuttle once told this former satellite designer and space program physicist: “You have no idea how much gravity is pulling down on all of us.” Home from the sheer joy of weightlessness in space, the dynamics of gravity were suddenly made real, pulling their shoulders and compressing their spines closer to Earth. It was a reminder of one of the universe’s illusive mysteries—gravity. We can measure and explain it, but we cannot see or hear it… yet. Physicist and writer Janna Levin takes us on the journey to detect, listen for, gravitational waves as the byproduct of a gigantic collision between black holes.

In simple terms, black holes form an incredibly dense mass. For scientists, this is where the fun begins. Since mass is an essential component of gravity, the extreme density of black holes will crush atoms and even bend light under its own weight. Yes, light has weight, and therefore one cannot really see a black hole, because light becomes trapped inside of it.

Decades ago, the movie Black Hole depicted a spacecraft passing through a black hole. This is science-fantasy. Anything with mass in close proximity to a black hole will not pass through it. Instead, the atoms of the spacecraft and the crew inside will become so densely packed that the result will no longer be visible to the naked eye, not to mention eliminating the viability of the spacecraft and its occupants. A black hole generates pressure of astronomical proportions. In a world of unnecessary hyperbole, it’s literally appropriate to apply the description “astronomical proportions” to a black hole.

For the purposes of Levin’s book, as two of these monster black holes draw near, anomalies in gravity will create waves that ring through space, but by the time they reach the Earth, they will be so slight that they will not be felt or heard by even the knowing. So what device will be needed to detect this phenomenon? By the mid-twentieth century, planning for and construction of full scale gravitational wave listening devices began on several international fronts. The devices needed to be big. The largest, called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), is run by Caltech and spans four square kilometers at two separate locations. Within its vacuum environment, LIGO waits for disturbances in a reflected laser beam as a means of sensing and measuring the dragon itself—gravity in the form of waves. It’s an enormous undertaking of scope, time, and funding.

With crisp storytelling, Levin tracks the creators of LIGO as it moves from thought to reality. Decades in the making, the success of this device is yet to be seen and, as some might say, hardly the point. It is another step in unlocking the mysteries of the universe. The geniuses of science will continue to tweak their experiments, conjure new frontiers to explore, and draw us closer to understanding. The field of scientists pursuing gravitational wave detection come from all corners of the world, and they are uplifted and hindered by their personalities. Humanity is the factor in the equation that’s impossible to measure. Beyond anticipated brilliance, we find professional paranoia, backbiting, and of course politics. However, the work proceeds with the relentless dedication of a monk, the ambition of a CEO, and at times the ruthlessness of a pirate.

Levin sketches the story with impressive color, while providing Polaroid-like narratives of the people and places along this scientific frontier. She is the type of science writer who can explain complex topics in understandable terms. In relating the beloved wizards and weirdos of the laboratories, she has brought the high-minded down to earth. That feat is as rare as hearing gravity, and it reveals the genuine process of discovery. History often documents invention as brilliant strokes of insight wrought to fruition, but Levin shows its plodding pace that spans decades, as well as its inevitable wrong turns into blind alleys and heartbreaking miscues that destroy careers. No doubt, her students at Barnard love to sit in on each lecture—scientists and laymen alike. If we had a device that measured passion, Levin would ring the meters and sound the alarms.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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Killing the Rising Sun by Bill O’Reilly & Martin Dugard

by Bill O’Reilly & Martin Dugard
Henry Holt

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“But some men don’t move—they can’t. Dead or mortally wounded, their bodies lie still, soaking the sand with blood.”

History is shaped by time and memory, allowing some facts to take prominence and others to fade away. As a result, Nazi Germany is remembered as the worst offender during World War II, while the U.S. decision to use the atomic bomb is given, by some factions, the moral equivalence of a brutal war crime. Typically, these misconceptions arise through ignorance, although sometimes it’s a deliberate rewriting of history for a political agenda. Regardless of the reason, news commentator Bill O’Reilly and coauthor Martin Dugard refresh the record in their latest installment of the “Killing” series.

To be clear, the atrocities of the Holocaust were a horrific stain on humanity, but at the same time, Imperial Japan conquered Asia in a brutal campaign that had no rival. Prisoners as well as civilians were tortured and killed without conscience. Women were pressed into prostitution. Nations were starved into submission. And yes, the Japanese conducted lethal human medical experiments within their infamous Unit 731.

The striking distinction about Japan was a core belief that they were superior to all others on the planet and that it would be ultimately shameful to surrender to the American “barbarians.” The indoctrination of this belief extended from the hubris of Japan’s 124th Emperor, Shōwa, commonly known as Hirohito. For Imperial Japan, negotiation of peace was not an option, and its people believed this wholeheartedly. Their soldiers proudly fought to the death. On the home front, every man, woman, and child was prepared to fight to the end in order to protect their emperor from shame.

Killing the Rising Sun is more than a discourse about the atomic bomb. It reveals its necessity by plotting the course of history during the Pacific campaign. Years after the devastation of Pearl Harbor and the U.S. retreat from the Philippines—not to mention a hard fought victory against Germany in Europe—the Americans under General MacArthur’s command were slowly regaining ground on the western front and creeping toward the ultimate showdown with Japan. As each island was recaptured, casualties were high. On both sides of the campaign, tens of thousands of soldiers died in what was becoming a regular repeat of the Normandy Invasion in blood and loss. Even though MacArthur longed for the dignity of combat and surrender, it became obvious that as many as a million or more soldiers and civilians were going to die before Japan would even consider ending their aggression. The extinguishing of Japan itself might even be necessary. The atomic bomb, as destructive as it was intended, became a viable solution for sparing lives in the long run.

Some historians theorize that Japan was only days from surrender when the first a-bomb was dropped, but this is wishful thinking. As O’Reilly and Dugard reveal in detail, Japan was dug in, and its people were willing to sacrifice to the last soul. They looked to Hirohito, high above Tokyo in the Imperial Palace, to harden their resolve. Even after the first atomic bomb struck Hiroshima, vaporizing thousands and debilitating even more citizens, the emperor refused to surrender. It’s important to remember that an American retreat would leave Asia under brutal control of Imperial Japan, much like eastern Europe was during Stalin’s reign. Therefore, a second, larger a-bomb descended upon the crucial industrial port of Nagasaki. Even off-target, it struck a devastating blow, which finally awakened Hirohito and his close advisors within their bunker beneath the palace. They soon surrendered, and the war was over. Again, make no mistake about it; the second atomic bomb was necessary. The emperor and his people by extension were that transfixed on war.

Another rumor that persists through time is that President Roosevelt lacked the will to use the atomic bomb, but nothing is further from the truth. Like most people, Roosevelt was tired of the bloodshed, but he died before the Manhattan Project produced a workable device. Shortly after Truman assumed power, one of the most secret scientific research projects fell into his lap. He had no idea that an a-bomb was being attempted, but now the power of the atom had been unleashed. Truman’s practicality soon won over, and he quickly moved to deploy the a-bomb, thereby changing the world forever. With either president at the helm, the a-bomb would have fallen on the nation of the rising sun. It was Japan’s rigidity and arrogance, just as much as American ingenuity and valor, that made this action inevitable.

While the American apologists will never stop twisting history to suit their ideology, Killing the Rising Sun is an honest and sober reiteration of the facts. It makes the case for dropping the atomic bomb without politicizing or deviating from the truth. With engaging prose and a gripping narrative, the authors humanize the Pacific conflict on both sides of the ocean by introducing individual tales from generals to foot soldiers, from scientists to civilians, from legends to the defeated. There is no mythology here. Certainly giant egos and even larger heroes traipse through each chapter, but these are real men struggling through Homeric moments in time. You’ll find yourself unable to put down the book until the end, and you’ll conclude that the decision to employ the a-bomb was more black and white than it appears through the muddled lens of time.

The book is an easy read, yet still contains the requisite footnotes and index to make it a suitable reference. It ends with a sentimental eulogy for O’Reilly’s father who was a veteran of the Pacific campaign. In addition, each living U.S. President was asked if using the a-bomb was the correct decision, and except for the sitting president, their thoughtful responses are included—and their conclusion is unanimous. As a work on the Pacific campaign, this book would make a better reference than many classroom texts. At the very least, it’s a must-tell story for a new generation.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Book Reviews - US Review of Books

The Elements of Power

by David W. Abraham
Yale University Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“For most products, it is just not profitable to extract minor metals. Because of this, no plants in the United States, for example, recycle rare earth magnets.”

Natural resource strategist and consultant David S. Abraham unveils the state of the rare metals industry in this sweeping and fascinating narrative that says as much about the business and science of rare metals as it does about us, the people who consume them. To accomplish this task, Abraham spans the globe from South America through former soviet block nations and ultimately to Asia, giving us a feel for the industry from mine to market.

Abraham marks the dawn of the Rare Metal Age at the moment electronic circuitry took dominance in everyday life. This coincides with the rise of the millennials, who have not lived in a world without the need to recharge or replace batteries. Even the batteries themselves contain rare metals, but most people are ignorant of our rare metal dependency. For example, just a small amount niobium, makes a ton of steel many times stronger, and micro amounts of dysprosium, as well as other rare metals, help compose a cell phone’s vital parts. Rare metals aren’t just rare; they are irreplaceable. They are also pervasive, from energy-generating technologies, such as wind turbines and solar arrays, to personal electronics, such as televisions and computers. These valued elements have even found their way into the circuitry of simple items like electric toothbrushes and toasters. The importance of rare metals to modern military weaponry, from detection equipment to warplanes, is paramount to security and progress. We just can’t seem to get enough. For decades, blueprints in both technology companies and the Pentagon have awaited the discovery or extraction of rare metals in order to breathe life into their plans.

To make all of this possible, rare metals require challenging mining and extraction efforts. While mining has caused negative impact on certain regions, sometimes devastatingly so, extraction involves a series of sophisticated mechanical and chemical applications, which are often accomplished in less than ideal circumstances. Abraham speaks of metallurgists hunkered inside crude smelting facilities, applying acids like witch doctors and exposing themselves and the environment to toxic byproducts. In some nations, mining rare metal ores from the earth is a lucrative sideline for its people. Regulation and control of this fast-growing industry has been challenging and often impossible.

Even though rare metals are important, they are not typically measured in the tonnage, and, therefore, major commodity traders are not typically interested in the business. This opens the door to private dealers and ultimately smugglers. And we haven’t even mentioned the political implications of controlling certain elements. While rare metals know no borders, they run up against politics nonetheless. China, who is the largest and sometimes exclusive producer of certain rare earth metals, manipulates the supply chain to whatever end it feels necessary, both economically and geopolitically.

In his complete tour of rare earth metals, Abraham tells us everything we wanted to know, but didn’t even know we needed to ask. He shares stories of rare metal history and the characters who populate its bloodlines, taking us behind the scenes to reveal the mines, extraction facilities, and metals brokers and buyers—not to mention world’s appetite for rare metal end products. The book itself is well researched and referenced, but does not overwhelm the average reader with the science and methodology. He makes the subject matter highly accessible and engaging. The book concludes with a wake-up call to the modern world. We must accept the fact that rare metals are finite and environmentally challenging to recover, but have become an essential part of modern life and a path toward green liviing. Therefore, we need to better regulate the process and distribution, as well as discover ways to preserve and reclaim the tonnage of rare metals we dispose in landfills each year.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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Armageddon: How Trump Can Beat Hillary

by Dick Morris & Eileen McGann
Humanix Books

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“She is accustomed to getting her talking points from Bill or some other key advisor and going out there and fighting for them.”

While some books are requested for review, others arrive on their own. Armageddon is one of the latter, and it sat in our in-box for months before the growing election season piqued our curiosity. Inside, writer Eileen McGann speaks for Dick Morris who is a well-known political commentator and former Clinton advisor. He knew the Clintons well, until his unceremonious dismissal after being discovered that he let a prostitute overhear a phone conversation with the President (i.e. Bill Clinton). It suffices to say that no one in this book is an angel. This is not a debate about Clinton in the classical sense, and there is no rebuttal from the Clinton point of view.

The book begins by outlining twelve reasons why Mrs. Clinton should not be president, ranging from her legendary temper to her right-up-to-the-chalk-line behavior with the law. Most of this information has circulated during the election year. He paints the picture of a candidate who is virtually unable to address controversy in a straight-line manner and therefore must constantly reformulate her truths in order to survive.

Beyond the general deceits that we anticipate from any politician—only the frequency and severity varies—Morris points out two troubling factors. First, since leaving her husband’s oval office, Clinton has become much more hawkish on war. During her period as Secretary of State, the Middle East destabilized, an American embassy was attacked under suspicious circumstances, and a general mood of international chaos has risen with more encouragement than mitigation. Second, Clinton is not charismatic like her husband. Nor is she a creative thinker. This brings up perhaps the only new insight in the book. According to Morris, Clinton relies heavily upon idea men who Morris calls gurus. Morris identifies himself as one such guru from 1995 to 1996. He claims that she becomes transfixed by her gurus, following their advice word for word, instead of incorporating it into her own ideas like Kennedy or Reagan. This behavior has even led at times to campaign staff rebellions, but more importantly, it poses the question: Who will be Clinton’s guru as President? In other words, who will be influencing her direction of the country?

In 1787 as Dr. James McHenry of Maryland exited the last day of the Constitutional Convention, he stopped one of America’s true originals and freethinkers, Dr. Benjamin Franklin, to pose a simple question, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Today our government behaves more like a bananas republic than that which is stewarded by its people. This transformation did not happen overnight, and we are all to blame for tolerating its creeping decline and the men and women who populate its halls. Morris and McGann could have posed the most important question: Which candidate can halt or even reverse our slippery road to perdition? And while we are at that task, if we are of the mind, it would be almost impossible not to raise the level of civil discourse given its current residence in the gutter.

No candidate is perfect or the best fit for the job, while some are better suited for the times. A case could easily be made that Clinton would deliver more of the expected in government, while Trump is a product of the times, the wildcard that occasionally appears in history. Not every wildcard is successful. In fact most are not. They are more influential than ultimate leaders. Ironically, Bill Clinton was one such wildcard who surprisingly won the presidency in 1992. Today, Morris presents the case that Hillary Clinton would further current causes, while deepening existing flaws in government, such as its propensity for questionable military action and the reckless course of the national debt. Morris is not necessarily interested in Trump. He wants to defeat Mrs. Clinton. One also has to temper his commentary with the fact that he has been forced to watch the Clintons from the outside for two decades.

Armageddon borders on the sensational, and its veering into Chelsea Clinton’s dealings should have been avoided. It would’ve been effective to see Trump vs. Clinton, point for point, making it the easiest for people to see the contrast and decide on their own. Still, the book does not claim to be a fair and balanced presentation—a phrase employed often by Morris’ former employers at Fox News. The book is of two parts: first, Morris’ personal assessment of Hillary Clinton, which should be sprinkled liberally with salt, and second, his strategy for exposing the weaknesses in her campaign rhetoric. Mostly, it’s a passionate plea to take a look at the woman behind the campaign slogans.

Three Things to Consider When Purchasing a Book Review

With hundreds of thousands of books published annually, marketing your book can be a daunting task. One of your choices will inevitably come down to whether or not to purchase a book review. Here are three major factors to consider:

Professional Writing – A number of aspects go into a professionally written review. First, is the staff populated by professionals? This seems obvious, but many review sites are writer mills, allowing virtually anyone who is interested to pen a review. Other review sites barely compose a staff. These are mom and pop shops that tend to hang an Internet shingle for business, purport authority, and write reviews on their own. These are not professionals at work, no matter how slick or jazzy their websites appear. Look at the publication’s staff page, if it even has one. Are there more than a handful of writers? Be suspicious of a publication that refuses to reveal its reviewers’ names. The byline credit is a basic courtesy given to a professional freelancer, and virtually none would work without obtaining a byline for their portfolio. Second, is the review publication consistent across the masthead? A professional review publication has guidelines and an editor who keeps its staff and articles in line. Each review should have consistency, generating both authority and confidence in the publication. Third, does the reviewer address both the book content and the writing? Any sixth-grader can write a book summary, but a professional will critique a book through informed commentary that also addresses the writing itself. If the review narratives appear summary-driven, conversational, or employ a first-person tense, these are not professional writers at work.

Authentic Readership – Are there dedicated subscribers, visitors, and followers of the review publication? A professional review means nothing if no one reads the publication. Weekly, monthly, and annual visitors are metrics that can be easily measured (and provided to the author). Does the publication have a subscriber base? If not (or if it’s insignificant), the publication cannot assert relevance for its work. And if the publication merely dumps its reviews on an on-line aggregator (that next to no one reads), it will not be of any service to the author. Next, validate the publication’s social media following with one of the free analytical tools, such as TwitterAudit for Twitter followers and LikeAnalyzer for Facebook likes. Here’s a dirty little secret about the industry: Many review publications are purchasing Twitter and Facebook followers to create the illusion of having a large audience, when in fact it is only a fraction of what it appears to be. This is useless to the author, as well as unethical on the part of the publication. See our article on this subject: Fake Social Media: More Common Than You Think.

Cost-Effectiveness – Most authors’ budgets are limited, and spending hundreds of dollars for a book review is not acceptable. Often these reviews are no better than that which you can obtain from a free book review site like The Midwest Book Review, which ranges from good, semi-professional coverage to amateur reviews. A professional book review can be obtained for less than one hundred dollars, but be certain to closely examine the publication’s writing and readership in advance.

Warning: If the publication or its editors are up-selling manuscript editing services or the like, you have to ask: What business are they really in? Are they a review publication, or are they a money-milking operation? The work of an editor and the work of a reviewer should never cross paths. An editor ensures quality, and a reviewer measures it. When the reviewer and editor become one entity, integrity flies out the window. (Hmmm… let us review the wonderful manuscript we just helped you edit… hmmm… not very trustworthy.)

Deciding to purchase a book review can be an effective tool when marketing a book. It can provide pull-quotes for marketing and stock materials for a media kit and press releases. It can even seed eventual sales. Remember, a book review is only the beginning of the conversation about the book. Read this article on creating a feedback loop to help kick-start your marketing efforts.

The US Review of Books is a professional review publication sent to more than 15,000 monthly subscribers, including thousands of additional followers on GoodReads, Facebook, and Twitter. The US Review is staffed by professionals and is highly praised by authors.